“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This is what the First Amendment states. At the root of things the only way for the First Amendment to be “violated” is for the Congress to pass a law that abridges one of these rights.
So where does the recent discussion trend of General Dempsey’s commentary (or lack thereof) on political organizations and activities by veterans fit? Is he seeking to restrict free speech? Or is he exercising his own freedom?
How does the current problems with “The Innocence of Muslims” tie in? Mentor and friend David Kaiser writes that “[An]other American trend is now forty years old, and relates to our changing attitude towards free speech. I remain totally opposed to any restrictions on free speech, include laws against hate speech, but the time has come to face a necessary truth: free speech has to be exercised responsibly to work. Beginning in the 1960s the idea has grown that the purpose of speech is to be outrageous, and that the more outrageous speech might be, the more protection–if not celebration–it deserves. Free speech that, for instance, points out abuses by our own government or calls attention to real dangers overseas has enormous value, but free speech that simply insults millions of Muslims does not.”
I’d been thinking this idea but as usual Dr. Kaiser is better able to explain it than I.
So, as I see it, when General Dempsey said “it’s not helpful to me” he expressed that speech should have some constraints. Others disagree. Which they are able to do because of the First Amendment. However, commanders have another problem that transcends the complaints of the chattering masses.
Let’s start with a clear statement – sexual assault is bad. It’s illegal, it’s immoral, its counter to every value our government of the people, our culture, and our modernity stand for. It’s also prevalent in the world and has been and will remain so.
What happens when a well-meaning or intended comment comes from leadership? Take for example Marine Commandant General Amos’ statements on sexual assault. In a world tour of Marin bases the general has had some tough talk.
“Amos used his tour to stress his own strong feelings about the 348 reported sexual assaults in the Marine Corps last year. In a roughly 75-minute talk intended for every Marine non-commissioned officer and officer, the career aviator demanded tougher punishment for those accused of sexual misconduct.
“Why have we become so soft?” Amos asked in a speech April 19 at Parris Island.
He further described himself as “very, very disappointed” in court-martial boards that don’t expel those who misbehave sexually, and he denounced as “bullshit” claims that many sexual assault allegations amount to second thoughts from individuals who initially consented.
“I know fact from fiction,” Amos declared, a transcript of his April 19 speech shows. “The fact of the matter is 80 percent of those are legitimate sexual assaults.”
“My lawyers don’t want me to talk about this, but I’m going to anyway,” he said May 23 at California’s Camp Pendleton, according to a defense legal filing. “The defense lawyers love when I talk about this, because then they can throw me under the bus later on and complain about unlawful command influence.”
These and other comments have led to 20 charges of unlawful command influence by the Commandant in Marine sexual assault cases. All because the Commandant thought he was talking tough to Marines.
This is where I believe URR and others were concerned about the intent and import of the statement made by General Dempsey regarding veteran politics. By merely weighing in he inserted command influence, whether he liked it or not. Once he weighed in he had an opportunity to show how his own ideas of restrained free speech would work when Admiral Nathman and 40 some other former servicemembers stood on the stage at the Democratic National Convention. The Chairman’s silence has provided other potential lenses to view his original comments.
Some see his actions as toadying to the President and taking a clear partisan stance. Veterans for Democrats = good. Veterans against Democrats = bad. One commenter even went so far as to press the idea that the Chairman is a Hitlerian lackey who would take an oath to serve and defend the President.
Now, I don’t subscribe to that idea. I firmly believe that if given an illegal order, the Chairman would sooner resign than take an oath to an individual, or choose to violate the Constitution. However, I think there may be a greater problem here and it falls to the concept of careerism.
Rather than political I believe that the Chairman may have fallen for the old “that which interests my boss, fascinates me” canard. Same thing happened to the Commandant.
It’s a great rubric for simple minds – and I do not think that General Dempsey or General Amos are simpleminded men.
But I do think the Chairman saw his boss getting pummeled and bothered by criticism. And the Chairman should have a personal relationship with his boss. The problem is that when the Chairman made his comments he was speaking from a personal level and forgot that he was commanding and that by making the comment it could be seen as undue command influence. Just like the Commandant. Or Admiral Mullen with his comments at the end of DADT. It is one thing to lead. It is another to lead in such a way that you illegally, or incorrectly, abrogate someone’s rights under the very Constitution we have sworn to protect and defend.
Finally, there’s a second point to the piece that Dr. Kaiser writes. Provocative speech, while free or allowable, should not be the only way in which the discourse occurs. And all too often blogs and commentators fall victim to provocation over prose. We can, and should, hold leaders, ourselves, and our subordinates accountable for their words and deeds. But we should also strive to do so in as reasoned and rational a manner as possible. It’s something I have struggled with for years and will continue to do so. Sure, our tempers can get away from us. But when we speak on someone else’s podium we also have an obligation to maintain a standard that fits the professionalism of the organization.